Valextra: Building growth by concentrating on core values
If there is a Milanese brand par excellence it is surely Valextra, the luxury bag business whose very name sums up much of what Milan is all about - travel and culture.
The name Valextra is an amalgam of valigeria, Italian for luggage, and extra, meaning superlative quality, which is what Valextra has stood for these past 85 years.
Founded in 1937 by Giovanni Fontana in Piazza San Babila, Milan’s key commercial hub, Valextra had somewhat drifted in recent years, but a visit to its presentation in the city last month, captured the marque in ruddier health and poised to grow rapidly.
It’s key strategy - concentrating on DNA, modernizing its archives and storytelling at haut niveau. Seen in the recent editions of their Iside bag, a hyper precision handbag presented in marvelously streaked black and white leather and finished with updated hardware.
“Functionality is always very important at Valextra. That’s the reason bags are made open on the side to show the construction and quality of the finish. That’s the Valextra signature, and the way connoisseurs recognize Valextra,” explained CEO Xavier Rougeaux.
All Valextra bags are trimmed with black lacquer the better to highlight their unique quality. Seen also in a new Milan handbag, made in innovative Valextra leather that plays on the multi-dimensional feel of the brand’s signature Millepunte calf skin. Or apparent in the charmingly sleek Nolo crossbody bag, which boasts a hidden interior strap.
“It’s important to create the right vestiaire. A bag from the archives back in the 1960s, but updated to be more ergonomic for tdoay,” adds Rougeaux, who was named CEO in January 2021.
To this day, every single Valextra bag is numbered by the artisan who makes it, guaranteeing great customer care. “It is very important we continue that tradition. One reason we brought back our factory,” notes the CEO.
In effect, Valextra transferred its previous rural plant, based in the countryside outside of Bergamo, to Rho, the last stop on Milan’s main metro line and the site of the giant Fiera Milano, the world’s most prestigious industrial design salon.
“We asked ourselves how, do you collect young artisans and train them and then get back to Milano? How do we protect all these various skills. So, we created a space were all this happens in Rho, just 30 minutes from central Milano. We have also launched a new Valextra Academy, working with Italian fashion schools to recruit students who want to become artisans. Creating the transition so these skills will not be lost,” stresses Rougeaux.
Today, there are 30 employees in Valextra’s central Milan offices, and 35 at the factory.
“Our factory is about pre-industrialization – where pattern making, samples and prototypes are made, plus small, limited runs of production,” he notes. Though most of the actual production is handled by a handful of laboratories spread across Tuscany, Le Marche, Vincenzo and Venice.
Worldwide, Valextra boasts 33 boutiques, many of them in Japan, which is “a huge and booming market. China is a challenge. And we have recently opened two shops in Korea, and one in Taipei in Taiwan. Now, we are looking more at the West. And want to increase our presence in both Paris and London,” explained Rougeaux, who prior to Valextra, had been CEO of Smythson in London, and held senior positions at Loro Piana and Sergio Rossi.
Valextra initially gained an international reputation for making very expensive handbags in exotic hides like alligator and hippopotamus. And it has always been noted for its logo-free approach, so Valextra’s bags have been carried by the likes of Gianni Agnelli, Jackie Onassis, Sharon Stone and Reese Witherspoon.
Historically, Valextra has kept wholesale tight - currently selling in less than 40 doors, albeit at the high-end of the market – like Bergdorf Goodman, Antonia in Milan and Farfetch and Luisa Via Roma online.
“Our brand needs story telling, as Valextra requires emotions and expressions to nurture a relationship with the final customer,” says Rougeaux.
The house does not release figures, but is understood to enjoy annual sales of around 60 million euros, with double digit growth expected this year. Valextra is controlled by Neo Capital, a French luxury investment firm which also controls Vuarnet, and a 30% stake in Victoria Beckham. While the chairman of the UK fashion house, Ralph Toledano, is also a board member of Valextra.
Valextra’s brand’s hyper distinctive leather products were elegantly displayed inside its flagship boutique on via Manzoni. It’s HQ is upstairs within the same cut-stone palazzo, located just 50 metres from La Scala. Products – including original white calf-skin suitcases dreamed up by founder Fontana over a half century ago - are placed beside modern creations, all presented alongside ceramics, vases and fine glass by Italian masters like Gio Ponti. The brand’s next big step: a wheelie case that riffs on an iconic shape.
Valextra has always been noted for its beautiful calf skin, and special grain that takes colors especially well. One of the specificities of Valextra is that all its colors are custom made for the brand – nothing off the shelf. All created by its own design team and produced by Italian tanneries just for the brand.
“Our founder was so passionate about his choice of leather, and he wanted our craftsmen to make things perfectly. Hence the precision of the lacquer. Valextra is about engineering beauty. It’s a Milanese design heritage,” enthused the French-born CEO.
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